You can’t read all about it
Jeremy has a go at fatuous reporting of research
In an article titled: “New Study Shows Humans Are on Autopilot Nearly Half the Time” (why must Americans capitalise every word?), the second paragraph starts:
It turns out that just under half the time, 46.9% to be exact, people are doing what’s called ‘mind wandering’.
So, is being on autopilot the same as mind wandering? An autopilot is a device that ensures an aeroplane, boat or other vessel pursues an intended path without the need for continuous human intervention. Is that the same thing as “mind wandering”? If a missile on autopilot were engaged on the missile-equivalent of mind wandering, I think everyone in the vicinity would become agitated.
Surely, autopilot, in its metaphorical sense, refers to the subconscious processes we all use when, for example, we drive from our home to place of work along the same route for the 500th time. It is the precise opposite of a wandering mind and is, by and large, a good thing.
46.9%, far from being “exact”, is highly contentious (and accuracy and precision aren’t the same thing). The figure appears to come from a “study” of 2250 people (the population of the planet is some 7 billion) and, one suspects, was restricted wholly to the USA (other countries are available).
Is the writer really saying that each of the 7 billion people is spending “exactly” 46.9% of their time on mindwandering? That is, after all, what he wrote. Or does he mean that 46.9% of people are doing it all the time and the rest of us, not at all? Or something else?—which I assume is what he meant to say.
“The study was designed to find out what kind of activities people did throughout a day, and which made them happiest. Mindwandering was just one of 22 possible activities people could list.” Assuming that the writer means, by the second sentence there, “Mindwandering was just one of 22 possible activities on a list from which people could choose”, what happened if people weren’t doing any of the just 22 possible activities (and is mind wandering an activity anyway)?
What if some activities can be done simultaneously, such as mindwandering and preparing food? What, if preparing food for one’s family brings happiness but isn’t sufficiently mentally demanding that it prevents (sad) mindwandering from occurring simultaneously?
What if someone were engaged on a mindfulness exercise around, say, a raisin? If the exercise was ten minutes long and the person’s mind wandered seven times, does that count as ten minutes of mindwandering, or does only the time when the person wasn’t wholly focussed on the aforesaid dried fruit count? If the former, that would be grossly inaccurate. And, if the latter, precisely how was that period of time calculated? Or was it, perhaps, a guess? Surely not, since we’ve been told that 46.9% is an “exact” figure.
The article continue, “And here’s the kicker: people report being unhappy during mind wandering. Something that we do nearly half the time makes us unhappy!” No! The latter is not a consequence of the former. Only if all respondents in the “study” reported that, during mindwandering, they were always and unvaryingly unhappy, could you assert that “Something that we do nearly half the time makes us unhappy”. If people were only unhappy 10% of the time when mindwandering, then the writer should have written, “Something that we do nearly 5% the time makes us unhappy”.
And it beggars belief that people are invariably unhappy when their minds are wandering. “Researchers found that people were at their happiest when making love, exercising, or engaging in conversation”, the article says. So, what about the situation when people weren’t doing those three things but were doing something that was making them unhappy so they did mindwandering on those subjects to compensate. Many people find thinking about what the writer coyly calls “making love” makes them happy (and certainly happier than what they were supposed to be doing).
And what about the 21 other things that the respondents had to choose from? Did they comprise a complete list of every possible thing that people could do? Hardly. So it was a partial list. Was it biased towards things that make people happy or unhappy? Did the things that made people unhappy make them more or less unhappy than mind wandering did (some of the time)?
So, let’s rewrite the kicking bit “people report being unhappy during mind wandering. Something that we do nearly half the time makes us unhappy!”
How about, “when restricted to an artificial and partial list of activities from which to describe what they were doing, some people, from a sample of fewer than 0.0000003% of the current living population of the planet, all resident in one specific country, and in a study of very limited duration, reported that mindwandering sometimes made them unhappy, though the time they were unhappy as a proportion of the total time their mind wandered is not known, and nor is it capable of being objectively calculated, and the degree of unhappiness when mindwandering compared with the degree of unhappiness experienced when doing other activities is both unknown and unknowable. In fact, the findings of the study are based entirely on respondents’ post-experience guesses anyway (estimates at best).”